A friend told me about the witch’s ghost. The story came into her possession via her uncle, and involved a woman circa 80 years ago or more who was alleged to have the power to transform into an owl. Out in the boonies, this was, on a farm where she lived alone or with another woman, depending on who tells the story. The locals all know it’s true, because of the apocryphal tale of the stout-hearted young man who was fortunate enough (?!?!?) one night to catch the witch by the neck while she was in her owl form. She escaped, but the next day the whole countryside could see she had a badly bruised neck. Curses were forthcoming, etc., etc.
Apparently, the witch stayed in the area following her demise. I was warned not to go alone to this terrible place (a tumbled-down farmhouse in the Pennsylvania wilds), for dread things might happen. It is a place, my friend said, of tremendous eeriness and freak weather. Naturally, I was enflamed with the desire to hit the road and hunt this ghost to her haunting grounds – and to document her with my trusty little Nikon. But I didn’t intend to chase the proverbial wild goose. In the interest of scholarly research, I checked the story with an expert on the folklore of the area in question – my 94-year-old great aunt, Gladys. When that venerable lady confirmed the tale, adding that she, too, thought the area in question to be full-octane scary, I made up my mind. I put my ghost-hunting companion in the car (91-year-old Grandma), strapped on my camera, jammed a bottle of water in the cup holder on the console, and proclaimed myself ready for the expedition.
When my friend told me the story, she had stressed two things: the wild remoteness of the place, and the freakishly changeable weather. She had given me directions to steer for a small rural church and cemetery, there to view the scene of the hauntings and the gravestone of the witch. While I appreciated her storytelling verve, I did not give much (or any, let’s be honest) credence to the bit about the weather, and I felt she might be exaggerating a tad with regard to the remoteness. So, on a sunny and warm early November day, we roared off in the four-wheel-drive with all the naïve swagger of Stoker’s vampire hunters, none of whom really believed Van Helsing at the start.
The first warning turned out to be the unvarnished truth. We drove and drove, deeper into the woods, higher onto the ridge, miles spooling out behind us as the road became ever narrower and more pocked with chuck holes. I was becoming a wee bit uneasy, but when Gram asked, with poker-faced calm, if I thought we’d have enough gas to get back, I played it cool. Sure, sure. Plenty of gas. Where’s that damn church, pardon me, but where IS it? We had lost cell phone service long ago. The woods were immense. From our perspective at the top of the ridge, they rolled away from us in unending autumnal waves, mile upon mile of wilderness primeval. I drove down two different narrow dirt tracks, both of us craning our necks for the elusive church. There was nothing but woods. I stopped and got out to shoot a picturesque broken tree and compose my mind. We backtracked, hope abandoned and stomachs now growling. And there, as we turned onto the rubbly hardtop once again, stood the church. It was as bright and clear as a sunbeam, and how we missed it neither of us can imagine. Perhaps it hadn’t been there before. Shakily thrilled to find the landmark, we drove back a road that simply ended, just past the church, at the rusted fence of a cow pasture. Below us, I could see an ancient leaning barn and a flattened farmhouse, no more than a pile of white planking.
All during our trip, we had the air on through the vents of the car. It was a wonderfully mild day, even warmish. Gram, who is always chilly, had removed her jacket. Now, as we pulled into the little church’s tiny lot, the wind began to blow. The clouds darkened. We stepped out into an arctic blast that stood our hair on end. Both of us remarked on the weird sudden cold, but after our hard won victory, we were determined to see the cemetery. We shuffled through the gate, backs bent and collars pulled up. I shot some pictures of the older gravestones, wondering aloud where the witch’s grave might be. It grew colder. My eyes teared in the wind and I felt the bite in my exposed hands. I hadn’t thought to bring mittens and hats. I hadn’t even worn a coat! Gram retired to the car, and I decided to get one more shot, down over the hillside to the old farmstead. No dice. My camera had frozen up, its little motor whirring, but its shutter slowed to arthritic uselessness. Suddenly, I felt a different kind of chill, and retreated to the car, too.
The cold fell away from us as we turned onto the hardtop road leading away from the church. Within minutes, it was a warm and sunny day again. I’m sure if we had stayed, it would have snowed. We wound our way back to the relative civilization of the main highway, chattering about what may or may not have just happened to us. I was already plotting a return trip, fortified with cold weather gear and an emergency road kit. I didn’t find an apparition, or even a grave marker, but I think I had my ghostly encounter just the same.